Political Polarity: Is Religion a Remedy?

I’m a fan of Christopher Bader and Paul Froese’s America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God–& What That Says about Us because of its practical application: it reminds me to be nice to Christians I otherwise want to disown. Using comprehensive survey data as well as interviews, Bader and Froese identified four views of God at work in the US today: the Authoritative God, who is both engaged in the world and judgmental; the Benevolent God, who loves and helps us though we often fail to do right; the Critical God, who keeps track of our sins but does not punish them during our lifetime (though the afterlife can be hell); and the Distant God, who created the world but then stepped back from it. They derive this from what are basically two central questions: How active is God in the world? How judgmental is God of the world?

Above, an illustration of the four views of God. The vertical axis is belief in God’s engagement with the world, and the horizontal axis is belief in God’s anger with the world. To see where you fall in Bader and Froese’s typology, you can take The God Test online for free.

How you see God, it turns out, shapes how you see all kinds of other things, from how families should function to capital punishment to science to economics. And a new wave of data released by Baylor University, where Froese is a professor, this fall suggests that Trump voters are strong believers in an Authoritarian God–one that is both highly engaged in the world and also angry about it.

For those of us who don’t think about God that way (or at all), people who think that way about God can be really frustrating. They tend to want things to be the way they were in some mythic past (#MAGA) because they think that God was more pleased with people back then. So they push reactionary political agendas to get us there.

But maybe, suggests an article by Froese and Robert Thomson in a recent issue of Sociological Forum, there is reason to have hope even for these folks.

In “God, Party and the Poor: How Politics and Religion Interact to Affect Economic Justice Attitudes,”  Froese and Thomson report that Republicans who believe that God is highly engaged in human life are often liberal on social and economic issues. (And, in contrast, Democrats who believe that God is judgmental tend to be harsh on these issues than Democrats who believe in a more benevolent God.) In their research, Froese and Thomson found that Republicans who see God as involved in the world–rather than those who see God as uninvolved–are to the left of their party’s platform on social issues such as welfare benefits, wealth distribution, support for ethnic minorities, care for the sick and needy, . Republicans who believe that God is distant tend to be less compassionate.

We have to keep these findings in context, of course. Republicans in general are still less likely to support government efforts to care for the most vulnerable among us; more likely to want to punish people who mess up harshly; and more likely to support state-sanctioned violence, such as the use of the military.

But those who have a vision of God who is kinder–and who are more involved in their churches–are “strikingly similar,” in the words of the authors, to liberal Democrats.

We can do a lot with that, including promoting a vision of God that is both engaged in the world and kind and loving to people. That’s work we can do one-on-one with our conservative Christian friends. Remembering that their vision of God is a sad one (It doesn’t make them happy. It doesn’t promote peace in their lives. It doesn’t lead to good relationships.) reminds me to treat them gently. (At least sometimes.)



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